After the New York Yankees’ final team bus departed for Target Field on Monday, a disappointed middle-aged man holding a folded Aaron Judge jersey left his spot outside the Grand Hotel.
He was too embarrassed to provide his name. He had waited for about 14 hours, since approximately 1:30 a.m., and left without a single Yankees player’s autograph.
Approximately 20 people had clamored for Judge outside the downtown hotel as he boarded the bus. Speaking later that afternoon from the Target Field visitors’ clubhouse, he said he appreciates the support, but neither he nor his teammates signed a single autograph.
“I don’t think anybody else would like somebody else to come up to your front door at one o’clock in the morning or something and say, ‘Sign this,’ ” said Judge, the Yankees’ rookie right fielder and a leading contender to be the American League MVP.
Yet the practice persists. For serious autograph collectors and sellers, this is the step beyond showing up at the players’ parking lot or batting practice.
Is it obsessive? Or is it …
“The same thing as fishing,” said 15-year-old Cayden Hatano from Cottage Grove.
He and his friend, Noah Acree, spend summer days pursuing signatures.
They get rides into downtown in the morning. They wait outside the visiting team’s hotel until two buses depart for the game. They eat at Cowboy Jack’s. They go to Target Field to watch baseball. Then they come back to the hotel after the game for another chance at autographs.
There’s lots of waiting. There’s an occasional payoff.
Just like fishing.
Acree’s mother would prefer he get a summer job.
“I tell her I have Twins games to go to,” he said.
The friends, who started collecting autographs before adolescence, began their hobby when the Yankees came to town last season. Hatano contacted about 20 different Twin Cities-based autograph Instagram accounts, which collectors use to tout signatures they’ve nabbed. He asked what hotel teams stayed at, and one told him.
The stanchions set up outside to corral a group of mostly middle-aged men, young adults, parents and a few children are a dead giveaway. This isn’t a grand secret, but some collectors treat the practice as such. They do not want to diminish their chances of securing a signature.
A Yankees fan who biked to the hotel to collect a Judge autograph for his daughter’s 17th birthday didn’t provide his real name. He said to call him Mickey — as in Mantle. Another man, who said he’d been collecting for 30 years, asked to go by “Chris K., the Mystery Collector.”
“I’m here to enlist in the Army,” he said.
“That’s why you’re here?” a stunned Hatano asked.
“No,” the man said. “I’m here to get autographs.”
Chris, who claimed to sell memorabilia, said he traveled from Chicago because he thought there’d be fewer people waiting outside the Yankees’ hotel in Minnesota. Still, Monday’s group, which stayed around 20 for most of the afternoon, blocked part of the 2nd Avenue sidewalk.
Tim Feia, a valet at the Grand Hotel for about a year, said he sees many of the same people during each Twins homestand, regardless of the team. He knows the “unspoken rules” adhered to by most autograph hounds: Don’t cross the front of the stanchion barrier, respect the space of people who arrive earliest, and don’t chase players through the city.
Only purists follow all of these.
Twins catcher Chris Gimenez said a woman in Chicago tried to pull the same trick two years in a row. She waited at a Starbucks near the team hotel, approached players and asked innocently, “Are you…?” Then she requested a signature for her grandson.
“Next thing you know, she’s got 35 balls in her purse,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of grandkids.”
Players went to another Starbucks.
Gimenez, a nine-year veteran who has played for five organizations, said the number of people who wait outside hotels depends on how many marquee players are on the visiting team’s roster.
Judge currently has the most coveted signature in baseball, and he said it’s an “honor” when someone asks for it.
“I used to be that little kid down the sidelines asking for autographs or something,” he said. “So anytime I can go out there and do that for somebody, it makes my day.”
Still, the 25-year-old values personal space.
“I try to do whatever I can for the fans,” he said, “but I try to knock it out at the stadium.”
It’s harder than it looks
Getting players’ autographs used to be easier.
Dan Ransom travels with his two sons, ages 12 and 14, from Austin, Minn., to stand outside hotels and go to Twins games. He said he could get 50-60 autographs in a single day when he went to the Metrodome as a Bethel student in the mid-to-late 1980s.
The internet has changed the dynamic. Online bidding sites have allowed anyone to become a memorabilia dealer, and increased media exposure allows players to become greater public figures than ever before. The market is robust — especially for baseball. Leila Dunbar, a sports memorabilia appraiser for PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow,” said in an e-mail that because baseball has the longest history of the major sports, it stirs the greatest appetite for collectors.
Gimenez said he’s seen more than 50 people waiting outside the hotel when his team arrives in the morning’s wee hours.
“You have to wonder,” he said, “what on earth makes people want to do this?”
He knows the answer, though. He remembers how receiving a player’s signature when he was a boy could change his “perspective on anything.”
Katie Bailey, from northeast Iowa, brought her son to his first Yankees game on Monday, and they stopped at the Grand Hotel that afternoon. Nine-year-old Mikey pressed against the stanchion barrier in a Gary Sanchez T-shirt.
“To get to meet anyone, it would mean so much,” Katie Bailey said.
That feeling never fades for some.
“The gratification is obvious,” Cole Brucker said. “Getting an autograph of your favorite player that you get to watch on TV on a baseball is pretty cool, you know?”
Brucker, who lives near Fargo, makes an annual trip to Minneapolis for the Twins-Yankees series. He has come to the Yankees’ hotel for about a decade. Around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, under a steady drizzle, he was the only person inside the stanchion barrier.
He wore a Yankees cap and Yankees pullover with cargo shorts and flip-flops. He wasn’t too wet yet, he said, so he was determined to wait, even though he did so the day before and left empty-handed.
The Yankees’ final bus to Target Field wouldn’t depart the hotel for about another five hours, but autograph hounds have to dedicate themselves. Brucker stayed put.
“What else am I going to go do?” he asked.